release of Robert Towne's film version, Ben Pleasants tells how he brought
John Fante's Ask
the Dust back from obscurity.
WHEN ASK THE DUST.WAS
by Ben Pleasants, guest contributor.
[March 13, 2006]
back on it thirty years later, it's almost as though it never happened. I was the link between Charles Bukowski and his mentor, John Fante. Fante had never heard of Bukowski; and Bukowski not only did not want to
meet his mentor, he did not want to help him. I was in the right
place at the right time.
After several years as a
theatre and poetry reviewer at the L.A. Times,
I took a brief stint at the Free Press as
Special Arts editor, where I did a symposium with Bukowski. When
managing editor Tom Thompson formed the L.A. Vanguard, he took me with
him as People's Arts Editor. Bukowski stayed at the Free Press to
watch it die. We still drank together, smoked together, had late
dinners at Barnie's Beanery, and I lent him condoms when he needed them.
I was planning a sabbatical
to Europe in the winter of 1977. Bukowski asked me to find his uncle,
Heinrich Fett, which I did. (See Visceral
Bukowski.) He wondered about his publications in Europe. Where were his books selling? I told him I'd see many copies of his
books in Germany, France and Great Britain.
He asked about London. What had I seen there? I told him I'd seen Post
Office and some poetry books. That made him angry. He said his London publisher had not paid him anything. He asked
if I'd write the publisher a letter to enquire about sales. I did. Meanwhile, Bukowski mentioned a piece in the L.A. Times about his favorite
writer, John Fante. For the100th time he told me to read Ask the Dust.
Bukowski wrote me the following
in October of 1977:
Hello Ben: The letter to London sounds perfectly
done. Let's see what the bastard does now. My interest in Schopenhauer at an early age -- god knows when? -- 16 -- was because of his clarity and his
bitterness and his rage, and in a way I felt, his humor. He was one
of the first who said things clearly to me. But it didn't last.
It was a flash, and I forgot him. Nietzsche came along a little bit later and he too was clear but he seemed to have
more meat. And then, I forgot him. The whole thing was just
early reading and discovery. John Fante was the first one to really make me feel something exceptional, to make that dent. Like
I told you. I'm not sure what you mean, "your
remark about adversity," but Dostoevsky did say: "Adversity is the main-spring of self-realism." I
presume that I didn't say that somewhere. Hope not.
To this Bukowski added
a dated response:
I found Fante, I'd guess, when
I was about 19. He didn't live in a house in this novel but described
his window and his place and his hotel somewhere in his writings
and it was along the cement stairway opposite Angel's Flight -- downtown
L.A. I used to pass the place he described and glance at it and quickly
pass. I admired his writing so much that just looking at where he
had once possibly lived was quite magic to
me. Of course, I had not
idea of ever bothering him. Sometime early this year there was an
article on him in the L. A. Times. I should have saved it. I showed it to Linda Lee. I told her, "Look, there he is! My
I'm afraid to read him now because
I might not like his writing now. I'd rather leave it like it is.
Heroes are hard to come by. … No, I never met him.
My first experience with a live
author? Now, Ben, you know almost everybody is an author. I suppose
the first known author I ever met -- and that was haphazardly -- was the guy
who wrote Exit Laughing and some other things. But I can't remember his name. I almost said Rupert
Brooke, but Rupert Brooke was the great love who got it in the ass
in World War One.
Anyway he was a famous humorist and I had seen
his photos and I was delivering mail one day and he was in his backyard
and I handed him his mail, I recognized the name on his letters, and he
was standing in his pajamas and bathrobe and with him was this quite sexy
wench, she evidently lived with him, much younger, you know, hahaha, and
I thought, the fucking writers really get the breaks.
I think I told you on the phone
that I'd finished the novel. Now it's back to the poem and the short
story. More shit.
That got me started. I went out and bought everything I could find on Fante, except Ask
the Dust. That, I couldn't find anywhere. Not at
On December 13, 1977, I wrote
out a set of questions to Bukowski. Fifteen questions and Bukowski
responded to each in detail. This is what I wrote:
Here is the letter about Fante. To my knowledge, he has written three novels and a book of autobiography
of Life. I am in correspondence with two publishers about the
idea of issuing a John
Fante Reader. They are St. Martins and New Directions.
If this works out you would do the essay for about $1000, to be paid on
receipt of the essay, not on publication. The St. Martins operation
would be better. Please don't mention any of this to anyone but Linda. Of course I will have to have either of the editors get in touch with Fante
first, before you write the essay.
Bukowski wrote back:
Jan. 8, 1978
Now about Fante, it was
a long time ago and much of it is blurred, I only remember the warmth,
the emotion I got reading Fante, an opening up of the senses as if they
were really other human beings around. As per exact details,
I am lax there.
Question one was:
When did you first begin
answered: "When I was
19 or 20."
How did his work affect you?
replied: "See above. Of course his emotionalism without
schmaltz helped direct some of the way I was trying to go. In a sense,
it was like I found Fante but in another sense it were as if he had found
me… Not like twins stepping in front of a mirror but
like two people very much alike in a certain way."
Which book did you like best?
Bukowski: "I liked Ask
the Dust best -- except for the title -- because I felt he did
best there what he did best, and also it was the first one I read -- it shook
and whirled me."
What are your impressions of his
Bukowski: "His style is
natural and open; you forget you're reading a writer
and you just read, but you become very aware of a person, not a writer
but a person."
What did you learn from his manner
Bukowski: "That there was a chance to say something any way you felt like saying
it as long as the saying of it was true."
How did Fante's handling of women
affect you (as in Wait
Until Spring, Bandini)?
handling of women made me think of them as very real women women (sic) -- magic
female, distant and close at the same time -- I am think (sic) of his mother-father
fights and his waitress-doper in Ask
What did you find in his treatment
of his father?
Bukowski: "Love, respect and sadness; Catholicism, rather a second God, male but
maybe a lot weaker than God number One."
Describe your trip to his house.
Bukowski: "Not his house. I went to a place near Angel's Flight he described
in his work. I think I told you about this in another letter"
Why do you think Fante failed
to reach many readers?
Bukowski: "See Mozart, Van Gogh, and so forth. It's the angle of the action,
the people aren't ready, it's the weather, it's the diet, it's the shoes
they wear and most of the people are almost always out of touch with the
best and the most real because they never have a chance to know what it
is, you know that.”
Would his books hold up today?
Bukowski: "Truth is a tough son of a bitch. I'd have to say yes. And
the fact that his writing is not of the exact present might remove
some of the fear that people have of an outward and direct art-statement."
Did Fante go Hollywood?
Bukowski: "Yes, I understand that he did, and he vanished into Hollywood, and it's
hard for me to know why he did, he seemed to have so much, but maybe he
just got tired, maybe he wanted to drive a new car, maybe he fell in love
with a whore who stripped his spiritual chances. I don't know."
Did he understand LA in the 1940's?
Bukowski: "Better than anybody. Grand Central Market. Angel's Flight. The people. He knew the street corners, not as a wise-ass hustler
but as a confused young man from Denver wondering where it was hidden."
What were his neighborhoods?
Bukowski: "Bunker Hill was his neighborhood. I lived there too before the (sic) leveled off the poor and put up high-rises. It was the best place
for the poor, the best place for cabbage and fish heads, boiled carrots,
the old, the insane, the young who couldn't fit into the offices down there."
Did the second generation thing
Bukowski: "Second generation? Do you mean American-born children of foregien
(spell?) parents. Of course, I understand that. Even though
you were there it put you half-way in and half-way out. It
was inside of your head that your roots weren't quite rooted -- learned at
first in the schoolyards."
Why in your mind is it important
to rescue Fante now?
Bukowski: "I never said it was important to rescue Fante. I only know of the
effect he had on me, even my chances to go on living. He was the
spiritual shot in the arm to me where the churches, the accepted writers
and all else had failed. I'm not saying I would have sunk without
him. But he was a force. He gave me some heart. He made
me smile a bit. I even liked the name: FANTE. What the hell,
I was very lucky when I picked his first book out of the shelves of the
downtown L.A. Public Library. Couldn't have been a better place to
do it. O.k., Buk"
That got me started. That got me revved up. I found John Fante's number in the West L.A.
phone book and called him up. I got his wife, Joyce. I told
her I wrote for the L.A. Times. I was a friend of Bukowski's,
Fante's greatest fan. And my grandfather worked with,H.L.
Mencken at the Sun Papers in Baltimore.
She put her husband right
on the line. "He says his grandfather worked with Mencken," she said.
"This is John Fante. What do you want?"
"I want an interview with
the man who wrote Ask
"Have you read?" he asked.
"I can't find it anywhere."
He laughed. "You're
just as bad as the last one the Times sent out. Ask
the Dust has been out of print for years."
"Look," he said, "If your
grandfather worked with Mencken on the Baltimore Sun, you can come out.
Honey," he said, "give this man instructions to the house."
Joyce got on the phone and
told me how to get to their home on Point Dume. I called Bukowski
and told him I was going to meet Fante. Bukowski seemed torn. He wanted to know and he didn't want to know. Meeting your god close
up can be scary.
Meanwhile, I found a copy
the Dust under lock and key at the downtown public library, where Bukowski
had read Fante's book so long ago. I read it twice. Slowly. I was there all day. Amazing writing. Traces of the downtown
of Arturo Bandini were still there: the bars on Figeroa, Pershing Square,
the Grand Central Market. I'd been there before, shooting an 8mm
black and white film on Spring Street, but now I saw it through Fante's
Bukowski's eyes, Arturo and Camilla in love and at war.
I called a friend at St.
Martin's Press, James Vinson. He'd edited the three great references
for St. James/St Martins: Contemporary
Novelists. I'd reviewed all three for Books West Magazine.
Fante wasn't even in the
volume of novelists. James asked if I could get him the book. I told him I'd make a photocopy from the L.A. Public Library if they'd
let me. I called Bukowski. I said I was going to get Ask
the Dust reprinted.
He suggested calling John
Martin. I preferred City Lights and St. Martins. While John
Martin at Black Sparrow was still giving Bukowski his monthly allowance
of a several hundred dollars a month, Lawrence Ferlinghetti promised Bukowski
a large payoff for his mass market paperback Erections. Besides, Ferlinghetti was Italian.
After my first meeting with
John Fante in 1978, I called Ferlinghetti and told him about the book. He asked for a copy and I sent him the pages I had Xeroxed in the L.A.
Public Library. Same to St. Martins. They quickly demurred. City lights sat on the pages for several months, then Ferlinghetti wrote
back on January 5, 1979, one week before I left
for the second part of
my European Sabbatical.
Ferlinghetti wrote the following:
Thanks for sending this up. I can see the influence on Bukowski all right, though I'm afraid I don't
see it as a great American novel. I can't say I read every word,
though I tried, and this may be the author's fault or it may be mine. I wish I were more enthusiastic about it. Why don't you try John
Martin at Black Sparrow? Or perhaps you already have.
Thanks anyway, Lawrence F.
That was that. I was off to France, Greece, and Egypt for six months. While I was
in Grenoble, France, John Fante wrote me an update on publication:
February 19, 1979
It was nice to have your note
of February 5, the details of which include your plans for Ask
the Dust and possibly Wait
Until Spring, Bandini. The only news I have from John Martin
is that he plans to publish in April or May or thereabouts. I have
a couple of letters from Bukowski, who says he still finds Ask
the Dust very readable and plans his preface shortly. I appreciate
your efforts on my behalf during your European sojourn and feel very fortunate
someone with your enthusiasm thinks about me and my work. I sent
Bukowski a copy of my last novel about two weeks ago.
All the best,
I returned from
Europe, the L.A. Times Book Review published my article, "Stories of Irony
From the Hand of John Fante." The article mentioned Fante's blindness,
Bukowski's reverence for Fante's work, the importance of Ask
the Dust as an L.A. masterpiece, and the terrible cards fate had dealt
John Fante in life.
What I did as a young writer
and critic broke the log jam on Fante's bad luck. A number of famous
writers wrote me to offer there help. Among them were Budd
Conroy, and Alvah
the Dust finally appeared in the spring of 1980 published by Black
Sparrow Press with the Bukowski preface, I received a box of books, mostly
by obscure poets, with no note or acknowledgement of any kind. It
was what I expected from John Martin.
But John Fante was delighted
with the adventure. He invited me to his house for several more recording
sessions, where he spoke with great joy of his new novel, How
to Write a Screenplay, which later became Dreams
from Bunker Hill.
When Fante died, Bukowski
and I sat side by side at the funeral in Malibu. We had done something
important together, Bukowski and I.
As the film of Ask
the Dust comes out in March of 2006, I am pleased I was there at the
right time. It's one thing in my life I got right.
As Dan Fante said in 1983:
"The point is you are
truly the one responsible for the renewed interest in my father's work. I just wanted you to know how very much I appreciate what you have done
for my dad's career and for his spirit. I want you to know that the
life and work of an often difficult, ungracious, proud, egotistical genius
would probably have gone all-but-unnoticed were it not for you."
That was good enough
for me. Enough said.
Copyright 2006 by Ben Pleasants.